I used to be a long distance swimmer in my younger days. I was pretty good but nothing to hold up in pride and not be rightfully pitied at this age. I was once in a meet to swim the 600 m freestyle- a long ass long race to be sure. It was in a 50 m pool so that’s 12 laps. It’s the kind of race that once it starts, you can get up and go to the confessions stand, visit the loo and return to your seats in time for last four or five laps. And most of us could never successfully keep track of what lap we were one while swimming. SO it must have been 10 or 11 laps into this race, the muscles had ceased to burn and ache and it was all just this meditative persistently steady climb over and through the water. Your head is half submerged most of the time so you can’t really hear much except for the brief intake when you turn your head for air. I remember noticing that after a long many laps of quiet and occasional cheering, that things must be concluding because it was turning it not a roar. I had no idea where I was compared to my competitors, except for the one guy one my right I could keep checking when I turned to breathe, who was pulling ahead of me. So whatever I was doing it won’t first place at least. He was far enough ahead of me that I saw him hit that wall stop and stand up and start raising his hands in victory. The screams were thunderous… but something not right about them. I hit the wall, flipped and continued expecting to coast and stop a few feet down there lane… They were yelling at him as it turns out, screaming for him to go on. I glanced back enough to realize others were still swimming and that poor dingus had relied too much on his counting so when he miscounted, and thought the race was over too early…. it cost him that race. I pounded forward and kept to it and took the gold in that one because I was ignorant of where I was supposed to be, didn’t pay attention to the guy next to me waving for his laurels, or even the crowd’s commands to act. I didn’t even stop at that last leg, but slipped and burned into a 13th lap before I heard screams and cheers for me to stop swimming until I was nearly ready to flip to my 14th. I won that race because I didn’t bother to count where I was supposed to be on the course, I just kept swimming until I either could not anymore or someone stopped me. It’s been one of the most important lessons in my art making career, and a little bit hilarious for a guy who is, if you known me, is not a sports guy. Long races are about consistency, endurance, survival and not expecting to know what you don’t need to know to get there.

We are in a hyper speed time of flash crazes and trends that explode and fade with nearly the same insane speed. A week is what a year used to be and sometimes a smash hit fad lasts a day or two at best. If it was hard to try and keep up before it is literally impossible now, so I suggest to all the up and comers… don’t try. It’s not actually your job anyway. I work in a lot of pop culture arenas and am and have been looped in and a part of some big pop culture moments- NONE of them were preordained, or they might have been but I was to stupid to pay attention or notice. But I don’t think I’ve had a Mr SPock moment yet or may never at all- that iconic culture bedrock you get to carve your name into, and then haul around the rest of your life. Not sure I’d want that anyway, but hit making is a desire that’s in all creative endeavors that speak to an outside audience. And that’s fine and all, but with the hyper acceleration of our social media now, it’s more important now to navigate it more astutely and manage it in a smarter way than ever before.

It’s hard not to want to be the creator of a craze or the “Next JK Rowling”… or the “Next Matrix”… or the “Next Barbie”. waves beg for surfing so the magnetism is intrinsic, but that’s a marketing impulse, not an art impulse, and the short answer to why you shouldn’t try is this basic truth: by the time the wave hits you, it’s already on its way out. It is possible on rare occasions to see the new wave coming, or be inside the business and get a vibe on the new thing’s arrival early by virtue of being inside it, but not a single person I know who has directed a hit film, written a hit song, or been a part of some cultural tsunami has ever once known it was going to crest that way while making it. They’ve always been a surprise. And the very nature of a surprise is that well, it’s a surprise not a plan.

Ray Bradbury once wrote that “if you ever find yourself sitting in front of your typewriter and start thinking about how big or important this book will be, how much fame it will give you, or money or success… get up and walk away. Go make a tea or take a walk until that burns off.” Simply put, you can’t make good work, while obsessed without great your work can be. The Work must come of its own accord, be shaped by its own forces internal and local. Thinking about where the work will go when it’s done while making it is insane in the same way as planning where your baby is going to school for college while you’re on your second date with your baby momma/daddy. Art is lives in the making of it, marketing lives int he selling of its remains.

A trend is just that- a rocket that soars almost as fast as it crashes. chasing rollercoasters sounds like a miserable enterprise, especially for a creative endeavor. Largely this wave surfing impulse is in the arena of a marketing department, and should never be in the studio. I’ve gotten those notes from the marketing dept after a book is readying for launch that a certain color is IN right now so maybe you should make the cover art more purple than green, etc… Or that while pitching a book to find “well nom,bies are really in right now… do you have anything zombie we can do?” Good art is not fashion and fashion chases trends by design- and it does so months in advance of what the public knows anyway so if you’re waiting for the new trend to be revealed in a magazine, that shit has already halfway to going out. Just don’t try to chase a runaway train. Make work instead and leave the marketing to the people who do this as a job, and be ready to stand firm against them, or rocket fuel their ideas for marketing your work as well.

I honestly was not even remotely on board with the idea that PARASITE would have landed with such a boom as it did when I was asked by NEON to create some art for their big Oscar Campaign push. Honestly I never imagines a Korean-language film about class struggles would ever make any American’s top ten list… maybe it could gain a Best Foreign Film nod, have the usual high end astute critics nod knowingly over their pipes… but Best Picture, and all the rest… not only did’t occur to me, I thought it was madness the marketing team was aiming for it in the first place. Obviously on that score I was magnificently wrong. And proves one of my points: the marketing team’s all want and plan for a massive success otherwise what would be the point of them? The artists don;t and cannot- Bong made a film he believed in making, needed to make and passionately believed in in order to make it at all. I loved the film, and felt likewise about making work for the film, even though I had no faith in it being the sensation that it was. And in the end we all made work we felt good about when it was out there, and everything that came after was even sweeter as a gift. But I also got to work on that after a couple of decades behind me so I knew as high as we might soar, it would never last or remain. And no matter how well received my work was for it, that it too had a self life, and needed to temper things and pay attention to what’s next rather that what’s hot.

Sometimes you hit later- you’ve made something that’s just too soon for its audience or has a delayed timer on its combustibles. It’s an old yarn to bring up Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, as an example of this- as it it came out to nothing but silence and even critical dismissal when it first published. And remained a seeming dud for over three years thereafter until something clicked, that spark ignited some errant petrol, and it became one of the most iconic and lasting children’s books in all of human history. You. Just.Don’t. Know. So don;t bother trying to guess.

Sometimes it’s outside forces or just shit timing that conspires against even a fairly set potential to make a hit thing… You write a terrific book on a grocery store heist tale and a day before you publish some racist turd shoots up a grocery store. Or you spend years making a book that is ready to launch right as a global pandemic lands first and ruins your rollout. You can never plan for these things or predict them, soars gain don’t try. But know well that I know how stinging those tears can be, and raise a glass to meet yours in collective sadness and surrender. Lightening isn’t always a good thing after all.

Sometimes you can tell you’ve aligned with something while it’s breaking, and find yourself by accident atop a wave you didn’t craft. ONE WORTH SAVING- my series of drawings for Craig Mazen and Neil Druckman’s THE LAST OF US was a recent example of this in spades. I had no idea how mig that thing would be, or the wake I’d get pulled into by drawing from it. I honestly just was enjoying it and had a sudden single piece of drawing I felt compelled to create for pure nerd love reasons, and it grew to 22 drawings for the show a swath of lovely interactions with its cast, crew and creators and has led directly into captaining some amazing work for them ongoing. It’s the fan arts dream sequence made real. But the core principle behind it was love for the material and the excitement to play with its tools. I made sure to even remove all financial whisperings from it by not selling or releasing any of the drawings until well after the series concluded. But a project like that is also fed by powerful people who make it, and love it as much or even more. Denis and Hans for DUNE, or David Lynch for TWIN PEAKS…. are all the same. A chance to play in the sandbox with other enthusiasts. You can’t engineer it, you can take advantage of it while it’s blossoming, even if only to take a moment to pause and absorb the moment your in, knowing like that sunset over the Sierras. it will fade all too sonly, and you will need to go back and make dinner. Maybe you’ll get another time in the ring with something like this, or maybe you won’t. It should never matter to the work, and you’ll never make good work if you chase it. Sunsets aren’t for catching.

The flipside of all of this is of course, if you can’t capture and contain lightening in a little and make good work at the same time, trying to make work for that purpose, ironically, sabotages your chances of doing so at all. When you try and engineer a hit, you are almost guaranteed to miss it spectacularly. I cannot tell you how many times I worked on a project at a publisher where internally they were all hoppingly anticipating it being the new Harry Potter… and then it just wasn’t. It’s easy to get sweet up in it, really dangerous when it happens while you’re making it, and really hard to decouple from taking responsibility for that miss after. Or even confusing that miss with your own success as its progenitor. MEADOWLARK is a book both Ethan and I remain overwhelmingly proud of, but it’s had a much quieter life than we though it deserved for a number of reasons- one big one being its marketing campaign got eaten by the pandemic, and maybe a small town father/son crime thing wasn’t the right flavor of ice cream at the time, or perhaps it was any number of others things. It’s done well, and it persists, but neither of us feel like it got seen int he same vigorous excited way we hold it. Most of us who do this for long enough collect FAR more of these than hits as a given. If we’re lucky enough to keep working, we keep our heads enough above the water to keep doing this as a goal. But we never once while writing or drawing MEADOWLARK, let its published success ever infiltrate into its making. and I think that’s why it endures as a value for us. It was made and forged int he pure flame and when the hype fades, that’s what remains… or does not. Nothing I ever did that was a planned hit, even if it somehow still managed to hit, holds the same affection for me- that same satisfaction- as the unseen quiet arrivals of forgotten projects I put my heart and soul into. That’s what endures and frankly what can lead to a hit later as fuel to your work fires.

I grew up absolutely obsessed with books, music,  film and tv narratives and now that’s my work, in a ll its weird ways from political articles for Politico, or the Times, children’s picture books, comics with some of the icons of the medium, working with celebrities, composers directors and writers… I could never have engineered it consciously, but let me passions act as navigator and while that sometimes ran me aground on certain projects and certainly has crafted more disappointments and frustrations than not, the aggregate is unsurpassably valuable, and all of it fueling a great excitement to do more. It takes redefining what a Hit is and make it something that you can enjoy and treasure rather than something that requires a codification by Instagram likes or some monetary assurance. Feeling proud of their risk you make is the only enduring coin that fills your account int he right way, making it for the right reasons whatever those reasons are, is the only song to waltz to. Just do your thing, and if you can catch a bit of lightening when it swims by, go for it, but don’t get lost in the hype machine we’re all in now and mistake it for the purpose.